Is Bt Cotton Seed Shortage real?

This year there is news of shortage of Bt cotton seeds everywhere. How far this is true? If one examines the sequence of events, and the facts related to private seed production, the truth appears to be otherwise.

From March, 2011, onwards, private seed industry has been lobbying with the State governments to increase Bt cotton seed. They were instrumental in bringing together various Agricultural Ministers in Ahmedabad to discuss this. Subsequently, Gujarat increased the seed prices, followed by Karnataka and other States. There was intense pressure in Andhra Pradesh, to increase the seed prices. Government also organized series of meetings, claiming it is only to discuss fixing of seed prices. Ofcourse, it is another matter, there was no discussion on any other seed, but Bt seed. By-elections in Kadapa also seemed to have some influence. While these efforts have been going on private seed industry has been releasing information to the media claiming that there 3.4 crore Bt seed packets (each packet of 450 gms), and they expect the demand to be more than this. Their expectation was that the shortage, or additional demand, would be 40 lakh packets.

To be precise, per acre, 650 gms of Bt cotton seed is required. However, since the package is of 450 gms, necessarily, farmers buy two packet per acre. By this standard, 3.4 crore packets would be sufficient for 170 lakh acres of cotton fields. Last year, as per government estimates, cotton was sown in 110 lakh acres, in India. Even if the demand has rise to 170 lakh acres, the growth would be 54 percent. However, authentic trends show that the growth rate cannot be more than 10 percent. At the maximum, it can be 20 percent.

That is, if the growth in acreage under cotton, even assuming it to be hundred percent Bt cotton, there is sufficient seed available for this season, for any growth from 0 to 54 percent. However, all acreage under cotton is not Bt cotton. There are different varieties, due to different factors. Last year stocks also need to be considered. Thus, the availability of 3.4 crore packets should be sufficient for this season of cotton sowing, in addition to the last year stocks and availability of non-Bt cotton seeds.

In AP, as per official information, in 2010-11, the area under cotton crop was 18 lakh acre and about 80 lakh packets (of 450 gm) were used by farmers. The expected area under cotton crop this year (2011-12) is about 20 lakh acre and the requirement of cotton seed this year would be around 90 lakh packets of 450 gm. Even if one takes, 4 packets per acre, there should be surplus of 10 lakh packets in AP state alone. There should be sufficient packets, as per their own estimates, given before the announcement of increase in seed packet market prices.

Also, in the meetings organized by the State government, it was mentioned that 1 crore packets would be made available to Andhra Pradesh. In fact, association of seed companies have also threatened the government about diversion of Bt cotton seed packets, if the State government does not agree to increase the price per packet. Government has also prepared a supply plan, with 32 companies, of about 84 lakh packets. Of this, more than 50 percent is to be supplied by three top brands – as the choices of the farmers.

Meanwhile, AP government has also agreed to increase the price of Bt seed per packet to Rs.930. It was reportedly assured by the association of seed companies to supply the necessary requirement, as promised. It has to be remembered that Andhra Pradesh is the major State cotton seeds are produced. Most of the 3.4 crore packets are produced in this State. There have been allegations of low price being paid to seed farmers. Such a situation has been blamed for usage of child labour. Some companies have claimed to have reduced this by paying more to the seed farmers, as an incentive. There is no independent verification of the same.

Seed prices were increased by the governments, with no independent verification of the information proffered by the seed companies about rising seed production costs. However, their own information shows that seed farmers, who invest their capital in seed production and sell them to the companies, get only 20-30 percent of the market price of the seed cost. When the seed prices were increased by Gujarat, media reported that Rs.500 of the increase would go to seed farmers. Government in AP did not even declare how much of the rise of Rs.180 would be shared with the seed farmers. In either case, none of the governments have taken any legal guarantees from the seed companies about sharing this price increase with the seed farmers. Thus, we cannot be sure that this increase would benefit the seed farmers. Past performance and seed industry practices do not give any such assurance.

Also, governments have increased prices of Bt seed packets for this year, in March-June period. But by this time, seed has passed long back from the seed farmers to the seed companies, processed and packed for sale. It would be illogical for seed companies to pay the seed farmers, for a transaction that has been completed. In summary, the increase in the cost of Bt seed packets would directly benefit the companies. In these days, one cannot be sure if these decisions have been taken by the particular persons in the decision-making structure, without any ‘payback’ to themselves. On a rough, back of the hand calculation, this should be anywhere between Rs.500 to Rs.1000 crore stakes. There have been reports in the media of corruption involving some higher political and administrative functionaries. Whatever might be the truth, this is a fit case for anti-corruption enquiry and proceedings, not in only in Andhra Pradesh, but across India.

Given these dynamics, past pronouncements, and present situation, shortage of seed seems to be artificially created. Farmers are being fleeced, by a consortium of government and seed companies, in the name of shortage. They are now paying anywhere between Rs.1200 to Rs.1800 per packet. Even last week, top officials have been claiming there is no shortage, while admitting that the seed packets supplied are way below the supply plan, initiated by the government. What went wrong? We need to seek answers for the following:

  • What is the actual production of cotton seeds?
  • Is there a independent government estimate of seed production?
  • Why the companies have supplied short, even while claiming they had sufficient stocks?
  • Who is responsible for this fiasco? Companies? Or government?

    In conclusion, there seems to be lot of distortion, fudging and deliberate misinformation being spread by the seed companies, primarily to increase the anxiety among farmers and mint profits out of such anxiety. Unfortunately, government seems to be a ‘knowingly’ silent spectator, if not a partner-in-arms. Alas, there is no independent agency, which can fix responsibilities, punish the guilty and correct this faulty system. No political leader, worth his salt, has cared to bring succor to the farmers. No ‘conscientious’ official has stood up to the machinations of the seed companies. Hard, toiling farmers are increasingly becoming victims of a powerful combine of politicians, traders and companies. From February to May, it was the case with grain traders and millers; in June, it is by seed companies and in July, we would probably see the manipulations of fertilizer companies and traders. Appointed and elected officials seem to be concerned with their bank balances and growing assets.

Sticky: Microbial properties, enzyme activities and the persistence of exogenous proteins in soil under consecutive cultivation of transgenic cottons (Gossypium hirsutum L.)

PLANT SOIL ENVIRON., 57, 2011 (2): 67–74 67

Z.H. Chen, L.J. Chen, Y.L. Zhang, Z.J. Wu

Institute of Applied Ecology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shenyang, P.R. China


One Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and two stacked Bt and cowpea trypsin inhibitor (Bt + CpTI) cottons and their non-transgenic isolines were consecutively cultivated to investigate the soil persistence of Cry1Ac and CpTI pro­teins and their effects on microbial properties and enzyme activities involving C, N, P, and S cycling in soil. Results showed that there were the persistence of Cry1Ac and CpTI proteins in soil under 4-year consecutive cultivation of transgenic cottons. Cry1Ac proteins varied from 6.75 ng/g to 12.01 ng/g and CpTI proteins varied from 30.65 to 43.60 ng/g. However, neither of these two proteins was detected in soil under non-transgenic cottons. Soil micro­bial biomass carbon, microbial activities, and soil enzyme activities (except urease and phosphodiesterase) signifi­cantly decreased in soil under transgenic cottons. Correlation analysis showed that most of microbial properties and enzyme activities in soil had a negative relationship with Cry1Ac content, while most of them had a positive relationship with CpTI content. Our data indicate that consecutive cultivation by genetically modified cottons with Bt and CpTI genes can result in persistence of Cry1Ac and CpTI proteins and negatively affect soil microbial and biochemical properties.

Gene alarm on GM crops

New Delhi, June 2: Indian scientists have discovered that the genetic modification of plants with a gene already used in crops worldwide may severely damage the plants, a surprising finding that may stir a debate on current crop biotechnology science.

The scientists at the University of Delhi have shown that inserting a bacterial gene that makes a protein named Cry1Ac into genomes of plants appears to cause developmental defects, growth retardation and sterility in the plants.

Several experimental and commercial genetically-modified plants, including GM cotton cultivated in India and other countries, make the Cry1Ac protein which is toxic to some insects. The insects die when they try to eat parts of these GM crops.

The Delhi scientists have now shown through laboratory experiments that modifying cotton or tobacco with Cry1Ac has a detrimental effect on these plants. Their results have appeared in the Journal of Bioscience published this month by the Indian Academy of Sciences.

“This is a completely unexpected finding,” said Durgadas Kasbekar, a senior biologist with the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad who was not associated with the study, but is the editor of the Journal of Bioscience.

“Until this point, if you asked someone in the plant biotechnology community what the Cry1Ac toxin does in plants, they would say it kills insects. No one has yet demonstrated harm to plants as this study has done,” Kasbekar told The Telegraph.

The Delhi researchers say such observations may have been overlooked in the past as most previous studies were aimed at finding plant varieties that can be genetically altered just enough so that they are suitable for cultivation.

Independent studies have earlier shown that levels of Cry1Ac in some commercial GM cotton decline progressively over the life-cycle of the plant and are produced at such low levels in vulnerable parts of the crop that insects can continue to consume them.

“We find a very strong correlation between the levels of Cry1Ac and abnormalities —higher the levels of Cry1Ac in the plants, the greater the damage,” said Pradeep Burma, a plant geneticist at the University of Delhi South Campus, who led the study.

Burma said these findings do not in any way suggest that GM crops are either unsafe for consumption or can cause damage to other crops or the environment. “But they reveal a previously unrecognised effect on GM plant development,” Burma said.

“It’s a hurdle we need to overcome to improve insect-resistance in crops,” he said.

The researchers have themselves shown that if the plants are modified in such a way that the Cry1Ac is confined in their chloroplasts – the site of photosynthesis in plant cells — they do not show any developmental defects.

“This could be a future strategy to protect plants from damage,” Burma said.

But scientists caution that the study describes observations and the mechanism of how the toxin harms host plants remains unclear. “We need to understand why the plants are being affected — and use that knowledge to make better plants,” Kasbekar said.

The Indian government had approved commercial cultivation of GM cotton containing Cry1Ac in 2002, and research groups have been trying to equip other plants with this protein. But a proposal to introduce GM brinjal with Cry1Ac has been stalled by the environment ministry amid concerns among sections of scientists and environmental activists about safety and environmental impact of edible GM crops.

The expression of Bt endotoxin Cry1Ac has detrimental effect on the in vitro regeneration as well as in vivo growth and development of tobacco and cotton transgenics

Press release

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There has been considerable interest and activity in genetically engineering insect-resistant crop plants using Cry genes encoding insect toxins from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The proteins encoded by Cry genes are called Bt-toxins and are thought to specifically affect only certain insects and not other organisms.

A paper (Rawat et al., 2011) from the laboratory of Dr. Pradeep Burma (Department of Genetics, University of Delhi South Campus) in the June issue of Journal of Biosciences now reports that expression of the Bt-toxin Cry1Ac in cotton and tobacco is detrimental to growth and development of the plants. Many of the transgenic plants obtained showed developmental defects comprising abnormal growth (stunting) and/or sterility. These symptoms suggest that expression of Cry1Ac could be causing growth defects in plants. Consistent with this explanation, the authors found that a majority of transgenic plants had very low or undetectable levels of Cry1Ac and that all plants having appreciable levels of Cry1Ac showed developmental abnormalities indicating a correlation between the levels of Cry1Ac expression and the developmental defects in the plants.

Because the process of making transgenic plants is such that there is variability between different transgenics with respect to levels of expression of the transgene, the authors suggest that there is preferential selection taking place during the process of making transgenics, for plants that express low level of Cry1Ac as a result of which there are reduced chances for plants expressing appreciable levels of Cry1Ac to come through the overall process.

The authors go on to show that if the Cry1Ac is now modified so as to be located in one part of the cell – the chloroplast which is the site of photosynthesis in plant cells, they are now able to recover plants that show higher levels of expression of Cry1Ac and the plants do not show developmental abnormalities. Thus compartmentalization of Cry1Ac within the plant cell so that it is confined to chloroplasts seems to alleviate the detrimental effects and the authors suggest that targeting Cry1Ac to chloroplasts can lead to plants expressing higher levels of Cry1Ac and better insect resistance.

At the same time the finding that expression of a Bt-toxin is detrimental to plants is unanticipated since the toxin is thought to be very specific to certain insects. The reason for the detrimental effects of Cry1Ac on plant growth and development is not known and its understanding would require further investigation.